There is a very broad consensus in the scientific community that global warming is under way. To the extent that there are conflicting views, they are usually over how exactly the process will play out. This is understandable. The climate affects just about every natural system on earth, and these systems in turn affect the climate. So making predictions is very complicated. Meanwhile, we have only one planet, so it’s impossible to run a controlled experiment. To focus on the degree of disagreement, rather than on the degree of consensus, is, I think, fundamentally misguided. If ten people told you your house was on fire, you would call the fire department. You wouldn’t really care whether some of them thought that the place would be incinerated in an hour and some of them thought it would take a whole day.Recall that the public didn't truly wake up to how badly our water was polluted until the bay in Cleveland caught fire and Boston's bay was publicly ridiculed. These are immediate and alarming TV images that the public can quickly absorb and appreciate. Not so with gradual global warming....
I think there is a surprisingly large—you might even say frighteningly large—gap between the scientific community and the lay community’s opinions on global warming. As you point out, I spoke to many very sober-minded, coolly analytical scientists who, in essence, warned of the end of the world as we know it. I think there are a few reasons why their message hasn’t really got out. One is that scientists tend, as a group, to interact more with each other than with the general public. Another is that there has been a very well-financed disinformation campaign designed to convince people that there is still scientific disagreement about the problem, when, as I mentioned before, there really is quite broad agreement. And third, the climate operates on its own timetable. It will take several decades for the warming that is already inevitable to be felt. People tend to focus on the here and now. The problem is that, once global warming is something that most people can feel in the course of their daily lives, it will be too late to prevent much larger, potentially catastrophic changes.
Finally, this excellent answer to an oft-heard question:
Some opponents of the Kyoto accord argue that it is unfair to America, because it asks us to limit emissions but does not ask the same of the developing world—China, for instance, which is poised to become a major producer of greenhouse gases. There’s a certain logic to this argument, isn’t there?Exactly. It's bad enough that Bush flip-flopped on his 2000 compaign pledge and withdrew from Kyoto; what's worse is he's never come back to the issue to try to make things better. It's been a complete termination, with no delegates sent to negotiate, no reach out to other nations to discuss the issue, etc. Nothing. Just head in the sand crap that we've come to expect from Bush/Cheney. Meanwhile, our planet slowly burns. What a leader!
There definitely is a logic to this argument. However, there is also a very strong argument to be made that the U.S., which is by far the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has an obligation to lead the world on this issue. If we curb our emissions, perhaps we can persuade the Chinese, who are in the process of ramping up their CO2 production, to take similar steps. If we continue to increase our emissions, then why should the Chinese, who still have a much lower standard of living than we do, bother to curb theirs? When Kyoto was drafted, it was always understood to be just a first step. We have been unwilling to take that first step, and until we do so it’s hard to see how progress can be made.